Monday, January 31, 2011

Chapter 52: Wild Beef

There was a bag of green bananas hanging from a fence post by VA634. I ripped into one. It was nearly inedible. I felt bad about wasting trail magic, and then annoyed at whomever had left them there. At least banana skins are biodegradable. I threw it into the forest. Which actually turned out to be someone's backyard.

The trail emerged suddenly onto a seemingly unassuming suburban street lined with dilapidated houses, their sad, unkempt exteriors reflecting the equally sad, presumably impoverished lives of their inhabitants. That is, if anyone lived there at all. Several of the houses had crooked for sale signs poking up out of the weeds on their lawns, and a couple were boarded up completely. What a pleasant place.

Bandito wanted or needed to go to the nearby Food Lion to resupply. I didn't, and so sat down beside the trail to wait for him to come back. Bandito left his pack, and ran off towards the grocery store.

I watched an old man in a vintage Chevrolet pickup truck cruise lazily up and down the street. I sat back, listening to the birdsong and the omnipresent buzz of a lawnmower approaching, then receding. Then a man stepped in front of me, his great round head blotting out the sun. He looked sweaty and downtrodden, and I could practically smell the dirt and plaster embedded beneath his fingernails.

"You a hiker?" he asked, wiping his brow.

I looked around. Bandito's backpack was propped against a tree beside me, his trekking poles lay discarded in the grass at my feet. I myself must have looked and smelled horrible. Was I a hiker? Or was I just homeless? It was hard to remember. I think I was a hiker. I nodded.

"I met a hiker the other day, right here," said the man, pointing down. "Nice lookin' young girl from Alaska. Can ya imagine that?"

Yes, actually. I could.

"Yep," continued the man. "She said she walked all the way here! Took her a couple of days, but she got here. All the way from Alaska!"

Wait, what?

"Wow," I said stupidly, nodding my head, hoping the man would go away.

"An' she said she was headed to Maine?"

"Well, yeah. That's where the trail goes."

The man let out a low, long whistle. "How long you reckon that'd take her?"

I shrugged.

"Two days?"

I shook my head.

"A week?"

I shook my head again.

"A month?" he squeaked.

"Probably a lot longer," I sighed.

He whooped, impressed, and slapped his knee.

"Hey, I should bring you a snack, you want a snack? I gave the other hiker a snack. She liked snacks."

"Sure," I said, without thinking.

He smiled and shuffled off into a nearby house. I actually hoped he'd stay inside and forget about me. Or that Bandito would return in the interim so we could get out of there. But no, the man returned shortly with some generic cheese crackers and a bottle of water. I was underwhelmed.

"You want anything else?" asked the man. "Maybe a burger? I could grill you up a burger."

"No, thanks," I said. "I'm a vegetarian."

"A what?"

"I don't eat meat."


"I don't eat meat."

He stared at me blankly, not getting it. Then he shrugged, and lit up again, "Oh! I know! How about some wild beef? It's just so juicy! And I just got it, recent, you gotta try!"

"Well, no. Beef is actually meat, technically speaking? And I don't eat meat," I said.

"Are you sure? It's wild!"

"No, really, I'm good," I assured him, trying to think of what wild beef might be. "Thank you, though."

"Okay," shrugged the man. I don't think he believed me.

I sat there eating my crackers as the man regaled me with stories of the neighborhood's various and numerous tragedies. Some respected community member had died recently, leaving her family in financial ruin, another person had their house repossessed, a lot of families were struggling to get by, the Union won the war of Northern Aggression, etc. Bandito couldn't make it back soon enough.

When Bandito did finally return, he wasn't as lucky as I was at deflecting the man's offers.

"What's wild beef?" asked Bandito, as the man ran inside to grab him a steak.

"Maybe he snuck onto someone's farm and shot a cow?"

Bandito laughed. But not for long. The man returned with a grotesque lump of bloody flesh that Bandito dutifully chewed and swallowed. The pained smile plastered to his face said it all. It was horrible.

I tried not to excoriate Bandito for being too polite for his own good. He's young, after all. He has so much to learn. I didn't feel like piling on.

Chapter 51: Terrible Chapter Title

"Where the bloody hell did you come from?" asked Redwing the next morning, appropriately flummoxed by our sudden appearance during the night. "I mean, when did you get here?"

"Like nine o'clock?" I shrugged, nonchalant. "I dunno, probably right after y'all went to bed? We were quiet. Didn't want to wake you."

"It was after midnight," asserted Bandito, ever honest.

"Why do you always feel the need to show off, M.C.?" asked Redwing mirthfully, but with just the hint of genuine puzzlement.

"Probably because I have low self-esteem," I admitted.

Ashamed, I avoided Redwing's penetrating gaze by pretending to just then notice that Braids was there. Yes, Braids! I hadn't seen her since Damascus! I never imagined we'd catch up with her again.

"Oh, hi!" I said waving, barely concealing my glee.

She mumbled an inarticulate greeting, and actually looked rather flustered, like she wasn't altogether happy to see me. But I could be wrong.

Either way, it felt wonderful to finally be back amongst the company of friends, even if it was destined to be a short reunion. The six of us chatted and caught up over breakfast. So much had happened in the last two weeks. Or twenty four hours. Braids and I seemed to pick up right where we left off. It was like we never left.


Bandito and I frequently held heady conversations as we walked, if the terrain allowed. Today we spoke about theology, the perils of corporate imperialism, and fine literature. At least until Bandito brought up the Twilight series. Braids had never heard of it, having apparently spent her pre-trail life living under a rock. I envied her ignorance, then found myself thrust into the even more unenviable position of having to explain the plot to her, complete with silly voices as I reenacted key scenes and bits of dialog.

Sometime during all this, Bandito, an avowed twihard, took offense to my gleefully sarcastic if completely accurate interpretation of the story, and attacked me with his $160 carbon-fiber trekking poles. Or maybe we were just horsing around, trying to beat the other around a downed tree, and somehow his trekking pole got caught between my legs. And snapped cleanly in half.

We stopped short, staring at each other in shock. I was mortified. Bandito was breathless, aghast. Braids ran up thinking one of us had broken our leg. I might have felt better had that actually been the case. Bandito tried to brush it off, admitting it was his fault, which I knew it was, completely, but I still felt terrible.

We were thus in a somewhat subdued mood when we arrived at Sugar Run Gap, where little more than a dirt road led down half a mile to the Woods Hole Hostel. If we hadn't known that Nature, Redwing and Lil Dipper were headed there, or that the proprietors sold homemade ice cream, we might have been tempted just to press on. But we wanted to see our friends, and I was still in a daze and looking for an excuse to take a break. So down we went.

We caught up with Braids's friend On The Loose on the road. She and Braids were planning to stay at Woods Hole. Which seemed oddly out of character, at least for Braids. Only a seven mile day? Then she told us the bad news. She was running out of money. She knew and had already accepted that she wasn't going to make it. So she had decided to slow down, to better enjoy her last few weeks on the trail.

"I mean, am I out here to make friends or make miles?" she asked.

"Miles," said Bandito, without hesitation.

"It was a rhetorical question," sighed Braids.

"So, what you're really saying," I posited, "Is that you regret not staying with us, because, for one thing, we've come just as far as you have, and, for another, you would've had a much better time."

"Well, that's debatable," said Braids, rolling her eyes, glancing uneasily at On The Loose.

I disagreed, but only because I know I'm such a great guy, and so much fun to be around. Okay, and maybe a little conceited. But I let it go.

Still, I was very sorry to hear about her situation, and gave a lot of thought to how I, we, might be able to get her through to at least Harpers Ferry. Maybe by pooling resources or something? Unfortunately, that was about as far as it went. It wasn't a very good plan. I kept it to myself.

We arrived at Woods Hole to find Redwing, Lil Dipper, Hobbes and Nature already there. But we had expected that. Except for Hobbes. His appearance was a welcome surprise. As was the presence of Bulldog, a blind man hiking the trail completely unassisted except for a talking GPS unit, and Hitchcock, the gregarious karate expert and cinematographer accompanying Bulldog to shoot a documentary/long-form infomercial about his travels.

I had first heard about Bulldog as far back as Neels Gap in Georgia, and had been hoping to catch up with him ever since. I wanted to meet him just to see who he was, to see how he was doing, to find out how the technology was working for him, and maybe even to offer to hike with him for a little while. My dad is blind, after all; I know how to guide a blind man through the woods:

"Rocks. Roots. Step up. Step down. Stay right. Roots. Duck."

Bonk. As my father hits his head on the overhanging rock outcropping.

"I meant 'Duck a lot.'"

Oops. And so it usually goes.

Bulldog proved to be amongst the most boring people I'd ever met, blind or no. After expressing my interest in talking to him, I found myself forced to sit beside him on the porch swing for an awkward twenty minutes or so, listening to him drone on about nothing in particular. Because you can't just tiptoe off and leave a blind man sitting in the lurch, talking to thin air. That's just uncouth. Only someone incredibly rude and insensitive would do that. Not me. No matter how uninteresting I found the conversation. It was disappointing, to say the least.

Fortunately, Bandito found himself getting along much better with Hitchcock. They had quickly bonded over their shared martial arts experience, and stood below us in the driveway enthusiastically demonstrating their techniques and prowess to each other. Braids, meanwhile, had volunteered to do work for stay, and the proprietors were soon enlisting everyone else about to help shovel manure in their garden. Although I take a lot of pride in my manure-shoveling skills, having done it both metaphorically and literally in my jobs in New York City and on the farm in Georgia, I wasn't so eager to volunteer.

For the next three hours I sat around glumly, thinking about little else but leaving. Redwing, Lil Dipper and the others were adamant about staying there and waiting for P-Nut and Caveman. I selfishly wanted them to hike on to one of the hostels in Pearisburg. I just wasn't ready to face the pain of separation, but I also didn't want to face the pain of having to say goodbye. I was stuck. I was terrified about losing my friends, about losing my place, my carefully carved niche in the family. But not as terrified as I was about not making it to Harpers Ferry in time to see Megan.

I don't remember if I even said goodbye when the time came. Almost everyone else was accepting a ride into town to resupply, and soon there were just a few of us left: On The Loose, Bandito, myself, Bulldog, Hitchcock, and an uninteresting married couple I didn't know, that I had no intention of knowing. I finally snapped out of my ennui long enough to interrupt Bandito's ongoing Bruce Lee impression. It was time to go. We had stayed there too long already.

I felt like crying soon after we left. Actually, I felt like crying most of the afternoon, but hiking alone in the woods, with reality of what I had chosen to do sinking in, my cool facade may have actually and finally crumbled. A complete mess, I serendipitously found I had cell phone reception, and called Elizabeth, Megan's little sister, for reassurance. Liz was the sister who lived in Baltimore at the time, whose apartment we would theoretically be staying at over the holiday. If I got there.

Anyway, I liked to think of Liz as a miniature, idealized version of what Megan might be if she were a real, functional human being. Liz has always been compassionate and understanding, and on this day she tried her best to convince me that Megan could be persuaded to stay another week if necessary, if I didn't think I'd make it in time. Of course that made me feel better, a lot better, and I hoped Liz didn't hear the tremor in my voice when I thanked her for all her help. I didn't want or need anyone else feeling sorry for me. I felt sorry enough for myself already.

Bandito and I didn't make it as far as we had wanted to that evening. I had gotten ahead of him to make my phone call, and also to sob quietly in private, but I eventually stopped to wait for him by a side trail to a campsite. The sun was going down. We decided just to stay there for the night.

I felt horrible for everything that had gone wrong that day, that I had broken Bandito's trekking pole, that I had forced him to abandon his friends. To his eternal credit, though, he genuinely didn't hold any of that against me. He was as eternally upbeat and eager as ever. He had always wanted to hike faster. Now he was getting his wish. Plus his parents were planning to meet him in Catawba in a few days, to take him into town to see Iron Man 2. Fate, plus an overwhelming desire to see friends, family, and Robert Downey Jr. movies, seemed to be keeping us together.

There was no fire circle at the campsite. So we made one. And then made dinner, hung our food bags, and went to sleep listening to the quiet burble of the stream next to us, the far-off rumble of traffic, and the not-so-distant crash of a large animal breaking through the underbrush.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Chapter 50: Waffle House

Catering exclusively to the blacked-out drunk and/or the financially and culturally impoverished, Waffle House is quite possibly the worst restaurant in the world. If fast-food chains were cities, the vastly superior but still unspectacular IHOP would be be Providence, Rhode Island: venerable, relatively inexpensive, not too terribly unhealthy, maybe a bit boring. Waffle House, meanwhile, would be Gatlinburg, Tennessee: garish, ugly, a blight on all creation.

The menu at Waffle House consists of six different types of waffles, eggs, omelets, and various combinations of highly processed carbohydrates and extremely fatty meats. If you're a vegetarian like me, your best options would be either the waffles, the eggs, or starving to death, of which starving to death might be the most pleasant. And tastiest. The International House of Pancakes, on the other hand, serves nine different types of pancakes, at least six different types of French Toast, waffles, crepes, eggs, omelets, soups, salads, burgers, etc. Almost all of which are edible, if not exactly palatable, to a vegetarian.

At IHOP, food is prepared in the kitchen, well out of sight of paying customers. Which is probably for the best. Most sane people don't want to know what kind of rodent hairs or bug excrement might make its way into their New! CINN-A-STACK™pancakes. At Waffle House, on the other hand, they make your food more or less right in front of you. For better or mostly worse, you can see exactly which horrible ingredients will be contributing to your imminent congestive heart failure.

I admitted to Bandito that I had never been to Waffle House. Bandito naturally misinterpreted this as an impassioned plea on my behalf, and so insisted that we go there for breakfast. His grandparents had taken us to Shoney's® for an all-you-can-eat dinner the night before, and that hadn't gone too disastrously, so I agreed, and was woefully unprepared for just how truly awful Waffle House would be.

I ordered the strawberry waffles, then watched in morbid fascination as the waitress sprayed a waffle iron down with some industrial-strength aerosol lubricant, squirted batter onto it out of a tube, and then added freeze dried strawberries that may or may not have actually been made out of horses' hooves and food coloring. Out waitress was a wonderful lady, her sad eyes and droopy visage betraying a breathtaking soullessness. She looked like a stubby, discarded cigarette butt, just waiting for someone to snuff her out, and prepared our meal with all the enthusiasm and zeal of a death-row inmate heading to the gallows.

And my waffles ended up being about as appetizing as a tax audit. I was mystified. What was their appeal? They weren't exactly flavorless; in fact, they tasted strongly of wood chips and airplane glue. So strongly, actually, that not even the most copious amount of corn syrup could disguise their inherent disgustingness. But that didn't stop me from trying.

I was feeling fat and bloated by the time we finally got out of town. Which was around ten o'clock. Which was a problem, because we had very ambitious plans. Bandito's grandparents asked where we wanted to be dropped off.

"You can let us off where you picked us--" started Bandito.

"Actually," I interrupted. "We'd like the skip the road walk if we can. Just take us to the next trail head, if that's okay with you?"

"No problem," said Bandito's grandpa.

Bandito started to object, but I punched him in the mouth.

His grandmother gasped, peering at him in the rearview mirror. "My dear, you're bleeding!"

Bandito started to explain, but I stomped on his foot.

"He's okay," I said, "He just fell down a flight of stairs. He's so clumsy!"

And I laughed, pointedly glaring at Bandito. He wasn't going to ruin my yellow blazing attempt. Not this day. Not ever.

And so we yellow blazed for the second time. We might have skipped eight tenths of a mile, bringing our grand total of missed trail to just over a mile. Sue me. Considering it was almost eleven and we had twenty six more miles to go, I wasn't particularly thrilled by our meager accomplishment. Bandito and I profusely thanked his grandparents for their help and hospitality, and then set off.

Hours passed. I found myself wondering where Caveman and P-Nut were, and whether they had gotten their church group-sponsored trail magic as intended. Would they have made it out of town before we did? Could they be very far behind? Could we possibly be behind them? All of which is an elaborate way of saying the hiking itself was boring, or that I just don't remember it. I do remember that we were averaging a steady two miles an hour, which put us on pace to reach Wapiti Shelter sometime just after hell froze over.

It was nearing sunset when we emerged from the forest and came, seemingly out of the blue, upon a suspension bridge spanning Kimberling Creek. What was something of such technological complexity doing there? Was it necessary? Or were the trail architects just showing off?

Who cares? It was beautiful. A light mist hung over the water, its dimpled surface reflecting the indigo glow, speckled with flecks of red and gold, of the setting sun.

We stopped just after the bridge to eat dinner. Whatever we ate wasn't very satisfying or particularly nourishing, but at least it was better than Waffle House. Sated, we steeled ourselves for a long night hike.

My first walking stick, Dino II, had broken coming down off of Tray Mountain in Georgia. My second walking stick, Dino III, had been carelessly used as firewood by an inconsiderate Boy Scout somewhere in North Carolina. Dino IV may or may not have been smashed against a rock or a tree in a moment of acute frustration. Dino V was now tucked into the compression straps on my backpack, mostly because I needed the hand free for my trusty MagLite.

Unfortunately, Dino V stuck up over my head rather a lot, and had the tendency to snag on every branch of every tree we walked under. Bandito, hiking behind me, found himself constantly bombarded by leaves, spider webs, and other miscellaneous debris. Which he found intensely aggravating.

"M.C.," laughed Bandito, choking on a leaf, "Your hiking stick is really annoying!"

"So grab it and throw it in the bushes," I taunted, never thinking he would do exactly that.

"Hey, look over there!" Bandito shouted suddenly, "Trail magic!"

"What?" I gasped, looking around frantically. I heard a scuffle behind me, then something crash in the woods to my left. And my backpack was suddenly lighter.

"What have you done?" I bellowed, aghast.

"You told me too!" screamed Bandito.

"Yeah, but I was only half-joking!" I managed to protest before breaking down into incoherent sobs.

"You're such a baby!" scolded Bandito, incredulous.

"Be quiet!" I retorted. "You'll wake the neighbors."

"We're in the middle of the woods!"

"Don't remind me. I want to go home. I want my mommy."

"I want your mommy, too," said Harvey, the invisible bunny.

"Shut up," I said, fed up.

It was getting to be that sort of night.

After passing a side trail to Dismal Creek Falls, the landmarks go as follows: at mile marker 608.2, a stream crosses the A.T.; a tenth of a mile further, another stream; a tenth of a mile past that, another dirt road; 0.4 miles beyond that, two streams; point two beyond that, another dirt road; then in the next point eight miles, a stream, a pond, another stream, and finally the shelter. That's a lot of streams, and at least one too many dirt roads. It being dark out, and our brains being fried, Bandito and I had no idea how far we had gone, how many streams or roads we'd actually crossed, and were constantly worried that we'd somehow missed the shelter.

Oh, all of which was exacerbated by the fact that the Wapiti Shelter is the most haunted shelter on the trail. Two hikers were infamously murdered there in 1981. So what if it was decades ago, and that the killer was now dead? It was unnerving. Being unable to find the place was unnerving. Harvey the invisible rabbit was unnerving. Everything was unnerving.

It took us nearly an hour of constant second guessing and, in my case, emergency cathole digging to hike the last mile. When we finally found the shelter, it was approaching midnight. Or maybe one o'clock. I still didn't have a watch. Anyway, I was in some depraved, demented mood when we arrived, and had half a mind to sneak up on the shelter cackling softly like a homicidal maniac and making knife-drawing sound effects to freak people out. But I didn't. And I'm glad I didn't. It was only Nature, Lil Dipper, Redwing, Braids, and some other girl I didn't know in the shelter, and my little prank would have been more likely to get me killed than amuse any of them. Bandito and I barely had enough energy as it was just to pitch our tents before going to sleep.

The lesson being, of course, never eat at Waffle House.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chapter 49: Virginia is for Nazis

Someone had written in the shelter log at Chestnut Knob about a church group in Bland, Virginia that picked up hikers from a nearby road crossing, took them into town, and treated them to a lavish breakfast party. But it only happened once a week. Probably on Saturdays.

"What day is it today?" asked P-Nut, intrigued.

"Friday," said Caveman. "I think."

They shared a look. They were going. The lure of free food on the trail can often overpower all other considerations, like common sense, camaraderie, or even survival.

"I don't care if it puts us behind schedule, if we never see you guys again, or if I get molested by a bunch of horny church grannies," said P-Nut. "Heck, I don't mind. I'll show those girls a good time! I'm going."

Unfortunately, the rest of us could not afford to be so lazy. Bandito was headed towards US21, some 22 miles away, where his grandparents were picking him up to take him into Bland for the night. Lil Dipper and Redwing were headed to the Helveys Mill Shelter, which was about 2 miles past US21, because, well, for some inexplicable reason. I still needed to do big miles in order to see Megan, so naturally I was going into town with Bandito. Meanwhile, I had no idea where Nature or Hobbes were going.

We started out and blah, blah, blah, whatever, it was boring.

When Bandito and I reached VA615, we saw two notices nailed to a tree: one was informing us of a trail detour due to a bridge being out because of flooding, the other was regarding the aforementioned trail magic. The church group was real, the grand hiker breakfast was happening the next day, and it was going to be legendary. I was happy for P-Nut and Caveman, but otherwise felt sorry for them. They would have to camp nearby in order to make the pickup in the morning, and there was such a heavy and overpowering stench of death in the air, you could practically see it all around you. It was like a sinister green mist of fetid, rotting bile. Imagine the most abysmal, pungent putrescence you can, and then give up, because you can't even imagine how bad this was.

Stupidly, we looked around for the source of the offensive aroma, and were dismayed to find it. A mangled, partially eaten deer carcass lay amongst the rocks at the bottom of a ditch next to the road. Right in the middle of Laurel Creek. And there may have been several more of them scattered about, in various stages of decomposition. It was nauseating to look at, and even worse to smell.

We didn't stay there for much longer, and we most certainly did not pump water from the stream. Instead, we hiked up the road, disturbed as much by what we had seen as by the unnerving thought of what wild beast, or human being, could have done tha-- There was a Jeep Cherokee parked in the road up ahead. An old man was unloading something from the back. And it wasn't a corpse. Corpses aren't usually transported in styrofoam coolers. Well, I guess they could be, but it would be rather impractical. You'd have to cut-- Anyway, my heart was racing a million miles a minute. Could it be? Trail magic on consecutive days?

Yes! It was a man from the church group, unloading ice-cold Propel Waters into a barrel just off the trail. We chatted with the man for a minute and then sat down at a nearby picnic table to enjoy the spread.

Redwing and Lil Dipper arrived shortly, and I repeated my earlier gesture of walking down to them with drinks. And it's not like I was trying to take credit for the it, or that I was insidiously trying to use Pavlovian conditioning to make them associate trail magic with my personal benevolence. I just liked seeing the looks of insane, unadulterated joy on their faces.

Caveman wasn't there to stop me, so I gleefully sampled every single flavor of Propel Water before I left. And then filled up my canteen with more Propel Water, because the stream was clearly contaminated and I didn't want to die. It was the only responsible thing to do.

Unfortunately, our luxurious break lasted a little while longer than perhaps I originally intended. Redwing and Lil Dipper left before us, and I grew increasingly concerned with how far ahead of us they might be getting. It would be a gross insult to my personal pride, and to America, for us hearty Yanks to fall so behind the wayward, hapless, hopelessly inept British. This was our country! I couldn't let them reach the road first.

Bandito trailed behind by a few yards as we ran down Redwing and Lil Dipper. I sang patriotic songs to annoy them, then realized they were out of earshot, and had to move on my less jingoistic repertoire. I had sung every song I knew the words to, and some that I didn't, by the time we caught up. I breathlessly laughed at them, and wheezed an inarticulate excoriation, denouncing their slowness, and inaudibly reasserted the supremacy of America, and heroically managed not to pass out. Our great national crisis was over.

We were approaching USFS Road 282 when I saw it. No, not the gallon jugs of stale tap water left by the side of the trail. Worst trail magic ever. There was a giant swastika spray-painted onto a tree, surrounded by cigarette butts, broken beer bottles, a ragtag gang of primitively armed neo-Nazi skinheads, and assorted other trash. Virginia. Charming.

Emerging onto the forest service road, we found ourselves momentarily adrift. There weren't any visible blazes around, nor were there any other indications of where to go. The lurking skinhead gang wasn't particularly helpful either. Bandito eventually found cellphone service and called his grandparents. They were waiting for us up ahead. All we had to do is follow the forest service road underneath some power lines, turn a corner, and we'd be there.

Bandito's grandparents were as delightful as the rest of his family, just older, fussier, and maybe a little dotty. They had been there for a while, and had already shuttled another couple of hikers to the grocery store and back. We left a bottle of Snapple by the road for Redwing and Lil Dipper, and piled into the back of their pickup truck for the ride into town.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chapter 48: Solace

My guidebook said there was a campsite three tenths of a mile off the trail to the right, but I didn't feel like looking for it. Although I suspected Hobbes had headed there for the night, I figured it was probably best to leave him to his solitude. Besides, we had found a nice spot near Reed Creek, and some of us had already started putting up tents. Nature. P-Nut. Redwing.

After we had all made camp, Redwing and Lil Dipper started a fire while Bandito and Caveman scampered off upstream to search for crawdads. P-Nut openly worried about his tent being too close to the stream, fearing the sound of rushing water would make him need to pee during the night. And he didn't want to stumble out of his tent and accidentally piss in the water source or on Redwing and Lil Dipper's tent, which was right next to his. I should have found this amusing, but I wasn't in the mood.

Nature sat on a log by the stream, soaking her feet in the water. Watching her, I came to the sudden realization that my feet hurt, too. I whipped off my socks and sat down beside her, tentatively dipping my feet in the water. And involuntarily let out a rather shrill and embarrassingly girlish scream. Too cold. Not for me.

Defeated at everything by everyone, I went to sleep to the sounds of Bandito and Caveman roasting crawdads over the softly crackling fire.


Megan was all I could think about in the morning. How terribly disappointed she'd be if I didn't make it. How miserable, forgotten and utterly alone she would feel with only her sister, her sister's friends and her father to keep her company. She needed me, I knew. Even if she couldn't always articulate it, or articulate it at all, ever, I knew. I had to make it. I'd let her down enough already. It wasn't going to happen again. I was going to make it.

I got an early start, hell bent to get to Harpers Ferry by sometime later that afternoon. After catching up with P-Nut about an hour later, I realized the slight flaw in my plan. Harpers Ferry was still hundreds of miles away. And I was averaging about two and a half miles an hour. And I hadn't even been the first out of camp. Maybe I was being slightly unrealistic, or possibly overambitious.

My frustrations boiling over, I decided to take a break by the north fork of the Holston River before I had an aneurism. It was actually quite warm. The sun was out. There was a pleasant heaviness to the air. I felt suddenly lethargic, and as though I could have been content to stay there by the river all day, soaking my feet. And so I doffed my boots and socks and did exactly that. P-Nut even joined me for a while. I tried to push Megan from my mind. It didn't go well.

Caveman, Redwing and Lil Dipper's sudden arrival wrenched me from my reverie. They seemed to find amusement in P-Nut's and my position. Like there was something funny about two grown men sitting on a bridge, naked, dangling their legs in the water? How I hated them all in that moment.

I was reaching a breaking point. My little break had accomplished nothing. I needed a sign, something positive to keep me going. And that's when I found it: a cooler full of generic sodas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

P-Nut and I had just passed VA42 and the O'Lystery Pavilion, a fancy gazebo off-limits to hikers, and there it was, sitting on the ground in the shade of a tree. We ran to it, wriggling out of our packs as we went. P-Nut wrenched the lid open. And I jumped for joy, nearly tearing both my anterior cruciate ligaments. Sam's Choice Cola! A more delicious combination of high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavoring and sewage water made by the finest child labor of third-world Arkansas I have never tasted.

"Caveman!" I shouted, as the eternally cheerful Georgian walked up. "You'll never guess what we found!"

His eyes lit up as he saw P-Nut and me sitting there, sodas in hand. Caveman joined us to enjoy an early lunch. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were, and are, unequivocally awesome.

The soft drinks were mysteriously running out, so I grabbed a couple for Redwing and Lil Dipper. I didn't want them to miss out. When I heard their voices approaching I jumped up to surprise them, walking down to them with the soda.

"No. Way!" said Lil Dipper. "Dr. Thunder! My favourite!"

Pretty soon the five of us were lounging about, relaxing, enjoying an early second lunch. After the girls ate their fill, there was mysteriously only one peanut butter and jelly sandwich left. I wanted it.

"No, M.C.," urged Caveman calmly, "Leave it for someone else."

"But there's only Bandito behind us! And he'd want me to have it!" I protested shrilly, "He probably wouldn't want one at all!"

Caveman laughed. "Come on, M.C., let's get you out of here."

"What? No!" I shrieked, trying to dance out of his grasp. And then I may have started crying. "Fine! But I'm taking another soda!"

"Another soda? How many have you had?"

"What do you mean? I just had one. Everybody else just had one so why would I have had more than one?" I stammered. "I mean, of course I haven't had three sodas that would have been incredibly rude what kind of insensitive jerk do you think I am?"

"What? You've had three sodas already?" Caveman laughed in disbelief, sharing a look with the others. "We've only been here for five minutes!"


"How is that even physically possible?"

"I was thirsty. It's very physically possible, and I'll be having a fourth unless you stop me."

He stopped me. And I cried like a sad, pathetic, lost little baby. I hope Caveman found it annoying.

But not as annoying as what Bandito told us when he caught up with us later. He'd arrived at the trail magic some twenty minutes after we'd left, and the trail angels who supplied it were there, restocking the cooler with soda and sandwiches. Bandito stopped and chatted with them for a while.

"They even offered me an extra one, but I didn't want it," said Bandito.

"You didn't have a sandwich?" I asked, incredulous.

"No, silly," he said. "I'd just eaten lunch."

"Caveman!" I screamed, adding several choice epithets, shaking my fists at the sky. And then I started crying again, startling Bandito.

Caveman was now my sworn enemy, and I would get my revenge no matter what it took. Even if it meant becoming his great friend. Again, not a great plan.

We ended that day at the Chestnut Knob Shelter, a charming, fully enclosed stone cabin that I found excessively dreary and depressing. And filled with jerks. Trail magic-denying jerks. Also, I discovered I'd ripped a whole in the seat of my pants. Who knows how long ago it had happened. Perhaps days. I was humiliated. I wanted to die. Or to have my pants fixed. Fortunately, Nature was a seamstress, and she selflessly offered to sew them back together. I appreciated the gesture, even if it made me want to cry again, for entirely different reasons.

I calmed down somewhat after that, finding solace in making a fire. Someone had left a huge pile of pre-cut wood outside, as if they had been planning to burn the shelter down. Which wouldn't have been very practical, since it was made out of stone. Unfortunately, I hadn't had much practice starting fires, and Redwing, despite her latent pyromania, wasn't much help. Maybe it was the encroaching mist that was turning into a steady drizzle. Probably. We ended up scattering a box of about 200 wooden matches onto a giant pile of leaves, and then setting the whole thing ablaze. Or trying to. It still wouldn't light.

Then the brilliant, devastatingly handsome and benevolent Hobbes came outside, and, using his Eagle Scout knowledge regarding the placement of kindle and the importance of oxygen flow, quickly and finally started the fire. Which totally wasn't frightening or dangerous, and definitely didn't rage horribly out-of-control and threaten to engulf the shelter. Which, if we'll remember, was made out of stone, and was thus fireproof anyway.

The three of us hung out for a while, bonding over our shared love of guilty pleasure MTV reality shows, our profound appreciation for Hobbes' fire making abilities and general awesomeness, and our insane, irrational self-hatreds that we had the nasty habit of displacing onto our innocent, unwitting friends. Or maybe that last part was just me. Anyway, it was nice, sitting around the fire. At least until it started to thunderstorm.

We went inside. I had arrived too late to claim a bunk, so had set up my sleeping bag on the picnic table. I crawled inside and settled in for the night, watching shadows dance on the wall, briefly illuminated by flashes of lightning. I soon fell asleep listening to the thunder and the rain battering the tin roof of the shelter.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 47: The Parting of the Ways

We sat in The Barn restaurant, enjoying a last lunch of greasy sandwiches and soda.

At the head of the table sat Hobbes and Nature, my surrogate mother and father. Mysterious, wise, and unassailably cool, I tried so hard to live up to their example.

Besides them sat Spark and Caboose, the perfect couple, their striking je ne sais quois matched only by their tenderness of heart and generosity of spirit. Never fighting to get what they wanted, they gave everything to each other, willingly selflessly. They had walked away from lives of wealth and comfort, and left behind their friends and family, to travel the world together.

Next to me sat Bandito, the brother I never had. Apart from my friend Sean, who I grew up with, who's also like my brother, but that's different. Loyal, eternally optimistic, considerate, beautifully uncorrupted and happy, Bandito was always laughing, always teasing, always asking questions, always eager to learn about the world, and always by my side. We had already been through so much.

Then there were Lil Dipper and Redwing, sisters in every sense of the word except for literally. Preternaturally mature, intelligent, and witty, I had to constantly remind myself how young they really were. It is a testament to them, or perhaps the power of their adorable, intoxicating accents, that I was always shocked by the rare flash of impertinence or lapse in judgement that served as the only reminders of their true innocence and youth. Like me, they had the bad habit of falling down a lot. If it had been in my power, I would have saved them from themselves. I ached every time they hurt.

P-Nut sat across from me, the Mary Magdalene of this tableau, his soft, kind eyes radiating a boundless capacity for forgiveness, tolerance, and love. No ego, no shame, he brought everyone together.

Alphabet, burning with an intense clarity of purpose, ambition and imagination, was at once inspiring, awesome, and terrifying. There was some far-off melancholia in her eyes that worried me. Like me, she seemed to carry her pain near the surface, even if it was only visible in the most fleeting of moments. I wondered if I would ever figure out what it was.

Caveman, my partner in crime. Always there with a discouraging word, always ready to deflate my ego, always with a mischievous grin and a 24 oz. can of Coors Light.

If only we could have stayed that way forever.

After the meal, I went outside and called Megan to apprise her of my situation.

"I've gone 538.8 miles!" I bragged.

"... So?"

"So? That's awesome!" I couldn't comprehend her lack of enthusiasm. "I'm in someplace called Groseclose. Whatever that is. We just at lunch at the Barn Restaurant!"

"And that means what to me?"

"Well, since you put it that way," I frowned inwardly, thinking. "It means I'm only like 480 miles from Harpers Ferry? Which is the halfway point of the trail?"

"Okay," she said, still sounding distant, disinterested.

"Look, I need you to be as excited about all this as I am," I leveled, "Or else, why am I out here?"

"You never said that," said Megan, "And I think you're misrepresenting my side of the conversation."

"No!" I screamed, "You don't get to break the fourth wall. This is my narrative, got it?!"

"Whatever. Look, I'm sorry, okay? I'm just dealing with a lot of crap at work," she said. "And at class. And at home."

"Yeah, yeah," I grumbled, resentful. "I get all that. You should be out here with me. Then you wouldn't have to deal with any of that. You'd be free!"

"When was the last time you showered?"

"Like a week ago."


"No, it was two days ago. At a church hostel."

"Right," she sighed. "Hey, aren't you supposed to be asking me about Baltimore, and Memorial Day?"

"I was getting around to it!" I snapped, "So are you going to Baltimore for Memorial Day?"

"Yes," she said, finally engaged. "Are you going to make it up here?"

It was Friday, April 30th. And Memorial Day is always on May 25th, right? So that meant I had about twenty four days to make it the next 480 miles. Which meant I had to average twenty miles a day. Which was a lot, but wasn't impossible. Unfortunately, it would probably require me ditch my friends.

"Don't ditch your friends," Megan urged, "Not for me."

What? But I would do anything for her. What friends? I didn't even like any of them! This was preposterous! Megan, who-- I-- What?

"That's ridiculous!" I spat, "I want to see you, I need to see you--"

"Well, just so you know, if you don't make it up here in time, you probably won't see me at all," Megan warned.

In retrospect, she was probably just trying to remove herself as a source of temptation. She didn't want to be responsible for me leaving my trail family. I couldn't hear that though. All I heard was an ultimatum. Get here quick. I felt oddly flushed, and light headed.

"Did you just say that if I don't make it to Harpers Ferry by the 24th, I won't get to see you at all?" I asked.


"Because it sounded like you just said 'Make it to Harpers Ferry by the 24th or else you won't see me at all.'"

"I didn't say that," Megan calmly reassured me, "But if you don't make it to Harpers Ferry by the 24th, you probably won't see me at all."

I could hardly speak. My throat went dry. I wanted to cry, but no tears came. I wanted to scream, but I was still on the phone and there were people nearby and they were on the phone, and it would've been really rude.

"Okay," I croaked, defeated. "See you then."

"I miss you!" I added.

"Don't forget, you chose to be out there," said Megan cooly. "Now if you don't mind, I have a Marxist revolution to plot, and an army of ninja cyborgs to train, I need to take a shower, and my dad wants to go to Panera."

"That's awesome and all, but why is the last thing you tell me always about food?"

"What are you talking about?"

"The last time I called you, you were in the grocery store, and you asked me where the orange juice was, and I started crying because I wanted orange juice!"

"That didn't happen."

It did.

"Anyway," she continued, exasperated, "I thought you just ate?"

"Yeah, but I'm probably going to be hungry again in about twenty minutes, and by then you'll be at Panera Bread, and then I'll be thinking about you eating a half sandwich and--"

"Actually I get the mac and cheese. Yeah, they make macaroni and cheese at Panera now. It's on the kid's menu, but it's really good. I think it has a Vermont cheddar cheese sauce?"

"I hate you."

And I hung up. And wanted to die.

I took a seat on a bench in between Caveman and Lil Dipper, devastated. I shared with them the bad news. They were disappointed, but conciliatory.

"Twenty miles a day isn't bad," said Lil Dipper. "Besides, I think P-Nut wants to spend Memorial Day in D.C. with his gay uncles."

"Really?" I asked, surprised. I didn't know P-Nut had gay uncles, or any relatives in Washington for that matter. And if he needed to keep the same pace I did, maybe it was possible that we'd all stick together.

Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Caboose and Spark were at that moment fussing over an injured Zoom, who had hurt her paw somehow and was limping noticeably. They were distraught, and had decided to get her off trail to stay with a friend of their family. Unfortunately, they too were going off trail for at least the next few days until they could make sure she was alright. Despite their best efforts to catch up, we would never see each other again.

Alphabet returned from a gas station convenience store across the street with a six pack of Yuengling. She was going home for a week, and had bought the beer as a gift for her dad. Apparently they didn't sell Yuengling near her, and it was her father's favorite.

"I didn't know you were going home," I said, trying to hide my disappointment.

"Yeah," she said, lighting up. "Paul Vidal is picking me up in a few minutes!"

I think she said something about how she had just talked to him on the phone, and he was running late after getting lost somewhere stupid, but I had tuned her out. Still, it was impossible for me to begrudge her happiness. She offered to share a beer with me while we waited. I poured it into my water bottle. Huge mistake. My Klean Kanteen smelled awful for the next three days.

After finishing my beer, I urged the others to hike on before Paul Vidal arrived. I didn't want to meet him. I didn't want to be tempted to punch him in the face, or worse, actually find out he was a great guy and end up liking him. Nothing could be worse. Actually, a lot of things could be worse, and they were, but I just didn't want to think about it. Enough had already gone wrong.

As soon as we crossed the road, I felt suddenly nauseous, and nervous, as though I had left something vital behind, but I couldn't remember what, and that I'd never be able to get back.

"So this is it," I said to Bandito. "It's all been in vain. Our fellowship has failed."

"Not," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder, "If we hold true to each other."

And we walked off into the sunset. Or to a campsite near Reed Creek in the aptly named Crawfish Valley.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chapter 46: Partnership

The Thru Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the definitive compendium of all knowledge in the universe, defines decibel thusly:
A decibel (dB) is one tenth of a bel (B), i.e. 1B = 10dB. The bel is the logarithm of the ratio of two power quantities of 10:1, and for two field quantities in the ratio √10:1. Whatever that means.
The omnipresent ambient noise of the wilderness--the quiet gurgle of a stream, the lamenting creak of a tree acquiescing to the quiet whistle of the wind, the cheerful chirping of far-off birds, the low buzz of innumerable insects--is 20 decibels, barely louder than a whisper. The sound of leaves rustling beneath one's feet is 40 dB. Due to the decibel's logarithmic nature, that means that the rustling leaves are 100 times louder than the natural ambience of the wilderness. The pitter-pat of rainfall, at 50db, is ten times louder than the rustling leaves.

Moving away from more natural examples, a car driving at highway speeds generates about 65 dB of noise. Bars and dance halls often restrict their volume levels to 90 dB, to prevent hearing damage. On this particular night, I felt like P-Nut's snoring was about 240 dB, or the equivalent of an AC/DC concert held at JFK International Airport at rush hour. During a nuclear war.

What was curious about all this, however, was that, when I first met P-Nut, he didn't seem to snore at all. He had started snoring more noticeably since then, but never so objectionably. I couldn't understand how this transformation had taken place, and spent much of the night contemplating it.

At about 2:30 in the morning I gave up, grabbed my stuff, and headed outside to cowboy camp on the lawn. I found it actually very comfortable there, underneath the stars, despite the freezing temperatures and the thick layer of frost that soon encased my sleeping bag. And I slept well, if only for about four hours.

I awoke shortly after dawn to the distant crowing of roosters. Muttering murderous epithets, I hung my sleeping bag on a laundry line to dry out, and waited for the others to rouse. P-Nut was particularly incredulous when he discovered me outside.

"I thought I didn't snore," he said, "And then it's like, okay, maybe I snore a little, and now I'm driving people out of free hostels?"

For some reason, I found his bafflement hysterically funny. Maybe I needed more sleep. In any case, we laughed about it then, and continued to laugh about it later. In fact, I'm still laughing about it, though by now I've forgotten why.

P-Nut, Nature, Alphabet and myself found getting back to the trail much easier than hitching into town. Probably because we went to Jerry's Kitchen for breakfast, and Susana offered to give us a ride. We only had slight 14.5 mile ambitions for the day, however, so we were in no hurry. We milked our last moments in civilization, taking our time to enjoy ourselves, and our meal.


If one of the worst things in life is listening to P-Nut's nocturnal impression of a Harley Davidson falling down a flight of stairs, then one of the best things in life has to be reuniting with old friends. Even if it's only been a matter of days since you've last seen them.

Partnership Shelter was another multi-story affair, nicer than most, complete with a "solar shower" and a sink with potable drinking water. The ground floor had been entirely claimed by a group of grumpy septuagenarian section hikers, who clearly didn't appreciate their space being invaded by a bunch of smelly, rambunctious youngsters. Fortunately, we came in with reinforcements, in the form of Redwing and Lil Dipper, and it wasn't long before Caboose and Spark showed up as well. By the time Hobbes, Caveman, and Bandito joined us later, we outnumbered the old fogies by a healthy margin. The crowd-averse Hobbes did eventually leave to stealth camp somewhere with more privacy, however. But not until after we ate our pizza.

Did I mention we ordered Pizza Hut? Well, we did. It was the first thing we did after arriving. We got something like eight pizzas and just as many servings of breadsticks for the eleven of us. I split a large Veggie Lover's® with Nature, and we shared an order of breadsticks, although she ended up giving me the majority of hers. Bandito couldn't finish his large cheese by himself, so I helped him out too. The best part was, after eating the equivalent of one whole large pizza and half a dozen breadsticks, I didn't even feel nauseous, I wasn't constipated for a week, and definitely didn't have explosive diarrhea later.

But I digress. Before the lot of us succumbed to food comas, we managed to commandeer the camp fire the old fogies had started. Caboose went off to take a shower. His girlish screams from the shock of the cold water jarred the fillings from my teeth. And then he was parading around half naked, just like the day I met him. Almost four weeks and nearly four hundred miles earlier.

Redwing let me borrow her ear plugs, perhaps as payback for me letting her borrow my fleece. The snores of the retirement community below us sounded like a high school orchestra playing Stairway to Heaven. Awesome. Plus, I was sleeping near P-Nut again. Aggravated, I went to sleep hoping tomorrow would be a better day.

It wasn't.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chapter 45: The Present Tense

I'm back in the N.O.C., talking on the phone, a beer in my hand. It's snowing. Backwards. Snowflakes rise from the ground like embers from a fire. For some reason, this doesn't bother me. Probably because I'm dreaming.

"So my shin bones are sticking up out of my kneecaps," I hear myself saying, "Is that bad?"

"... I hope you're kidding," says a woman on the other end, stern, but with a hint of genuine concern.

Of course I'm kidding. "No," I say, "There's blood everywhere. I think I'm going to pass out."

"Corwin, that's not funny. You need to come home!"

"I can't!" I say, not getting it, "At least, not yet."

"No, like, I need you to come back--"

There's something plaintive in her voice that tugs on my chest. My stomach does a somersault. My head is swimming. Damn it! I wish I weren't so drunk. But no, it's not me. It's the rest of the world that's spinning and dissolving, disappearing like water down a drain.

"--in one piece."

And she's gone. And now there's Megan, waiting for me on that mountaintop. She's smiling, and carrying a pizza. Somehow, I know that it's a large. She would bring me a large. I also know that it's still warm. I am so hungry. I want to eat that pizza right now, but I also want to throw it aside, grab Megan, and kiss her, and never let go. My competing desires threaten to split my head in two. Pizza. Megan. Megan. Pizza. Of course, Megan. It was never much of a choice. The wind billows her hair, making her seem to float like some outsized, radiant elf queen. I tremble before her, except I am not there. I am nowhere. I am nothing. I am sucked into the abyss.


A burst of static.

And then I'm awake, my crusted eyes opening to the dawn. I'm in my sleeping bag. I'm lying on my back, staring up at the icicles hanging from the eaves of the shelter. I watch my breath crystalize in the air before me. P-Nut is snoring, but it's not so bad.

Someone else is awake and moving about. It must be Alpine, trying to live up to his name by getting an early start. I wave. He smiles back, but says nothing. Neither of us wants to wake the others.

I sit up. I need to pee, as I generally do first thing in the morning. I frequently have lucid dreams about urinating, and it's always so satisfying that I usually wake up with a start, afraid I've gone to the bathroom in my sleep. It's surprisingly hard to rouse yourself to take a piss in the middle of the night, or even in the morning, especially if it's cold. You know you have to, but you really don't want to leave the warmth of your sleeping bag. The air outside is so chilly, and once you're out, that's it. There's no going back. I make the plunge.

My boots are frozen solid. As are everyone else's. That's unfortunate. I slip on my Tevas and sneak off to visit the privy. Another morning ritual. I like to get that out of the way before everybody else wakes up, not as much to have privacy as to avoid the inevitable lines.

When I return, some of the others are stirring. In a fit of inspiration, I move everyone's boots into a nearby patch of sunlight, hoping they'll thaw. I quietly gather my belongings and cram them methodically into my backpack: always first, at the bottom, my sleeping pad; then my sleeping bag, my clothes, my stove, and my tent. That leaves only my food bag, but I haven't eaten yet.

I sit down at the picnic table and review my options. Granola, or granola. Excellent! I love granola. It's got lots of fiber, a surprising amount of protein, and tons of complex carbohydrates. In short, it has everything a hiker needs! Or a normal person, for that matter.

Redwing's up, and joins me for breakfast. She asks me if I want my fleece back. Of course I do, but not yet. I am the consumate gentleman. Who says chivalry is dead?

By the time everyone else is up, we're discussing our plans for the day. I'm headed into Troutdale, Virginia, where I'm expecting a mail drop. I'm planning on staying at a church hostel in town. It's free. It has showers. P-Nut, Alphabet and Nature consider going with me. I have no idea where Redwing and Lil Dipper are headed. Caboose and Spark are going to a campground just before Dickey Gap, which is where we'll be trying to hitch into town. We all agree to stay at the Partnership Shelter tomorrow night, no matter where we end up today. Partnership is right next to a road, and Pizza Hut delivers.

I leave a note in the Wise Shelter log before we leave:
Dear Caveman, Bandito, and Hobbes:
Nature, P-Nut, Alphabet and myself are planning on going into Troutdale today, where I am expecting a mail drop. It's going to be delicious homemade brownies and probably those other food items that you love so much. I am sorry that none of you will be there to share it with me. Unfortunately, we're going to have a party and do all the fun things you wish you could be doing, and so there won't be any left when I come back to the trail. You should have came with me yesterday! The weather cleared up twenty minutes after I left! And it was an easy hike! Just catch up, already! Me and the dirty, dirty slackpackers are planning to stay at the Partnership Shelter tomorrow where we can order pizza. You should join us.
Major Chafage
PS.  Did you see any more ponies? We did. A whole herd of them walked up while we were eating breakfast. However many ponies you saw, we saw like five times as many. And ours were way cuter. Redwing and Lil Dipper were petting them! P-Nut and Caboose actually mounted a couple of them, and started jousting, using their trekking poles as lances! Nature even helped one pony give birth! The foal is beautiful. We named her Sophie. You should have been there. 
PPS. I miss you guys. Especially Hobbes. 
Being legendary is hard work.

My boots are still frozen when I set out a few minutes later. The soles don't bend at all, and the cold numbs my feet to the point where I start to lose sensation, except for sporadic sparks of pain that send shivers through my legs. It's intensely uncomfortable. For about ten minutes anyway, then they start to loosen up. It's ultimately not so bad. I worry that my feet will get wet when the ice in the boots thaws, but it doesn't happen. For that, at least, I am thankful.

I hike alone, ahead of the others. I don't mind the solitude. It gives me time to think and reflect. I'm trying to remember a particular dream I had last night when I realize that I'm lost. About a dozen hiking trails crisscross the Grayson Highlands, and I've evidently stumbled onto the wrong one. I double back.

I see Alphabet and Nature coming up behind me, and I tell them they've made a mistake in following me. We laugh, and I lead on in a different direction. I pretend to know where I'm going, and hope that I do.

We meet Redwing and Lil Dipper at "The Scales," the remnants of an old livestock corral. People used to raise horses in the surrounding meadows, and they'd weigh them here before taking them down to market. But that was decades ago. The wild ponies that now dominate the Grayson Highlands are the descendants of those horses. A couple of them still wander around the paddock, grazing peacefully.

After a short break, I continue on with P-Nut and Alphabet. Alphabet tells us more about her plans to open a brewery after she's done with the trail. She says she's never home brewed before, but is going to start when she's done with the trail. Once she's came up with a few satisfactory recipes, she'll pay a local microbrewery near her home to make them. Then she'll sell them for millions of dollars, and the rest will be history. Or something. It sounds like a brilliant plan. I am impressed, and actually kind of intimidated.

I tell Alphabet and P-Nut about Megan. I tell them how awesome she is, how she's funny, intelligent, fierce, independent, and beautiful. P-Nut is skeptical, and tells me she sounds too good to be true. I assure them that she is real, that I'm not operating under any delusions or letting the isolation of the trail get to me. I know I'm not idealizing Megan or blowing her up in my mind just because I'm away from her. No, I'm still fully aware of just how awful a person she is, how she's a complete failure as a human being. I'm just madly in love with her anyway.

P-Nut seems down all of a sudden, and complains to Alphabet and myself about how he's suffering through an existential crisis. He says that, curiously, he doesn't even feel like the main character in his own life's story. He thinks he's more like a sidekick, or maybe the comic relief. The only thing that makes sense to him is his role as an audience surrogate: he understands that he's a blank slate onto which the reader can project his or her own feelings and personality, and he's okay with that. Also he's single, he's achingly lonely, and doesn't have a boyfriend, or girlfriend.

I harbor a suspicion that P-Nut is pink blazing Redwing or Lil Dipper. Or both. P-Nut adamantly denies it, and claims to be pink blazing me. I don't believe him, but am somewhat flattered anyway. He is a ruggedly handsome man.

Alphabet interjects to tells us about Paul Vidal, her annoyingly charming, devilishly handsome boyfriend. She remains fixated on his looks, his brilliance, his suave personality, his unique sense of humor. She can't shut up about him. I hate it when people go on and on about their significant others.

We pass the Hurricane Mountain Shelter and stop to take pictures on a bridge over Comers Creek, where there is a dazzling cascade. I think that if Paul Vidal was there, I might push him into the water. P-Nut looks at me and nods, as if reading my mind.

We arrive at the road and find Nature already trying to hitch a ride. We join her, and have no luck for about twenty minutes, then a car headed out of town pulls a u-turn and stops in front of us. It's Jerry Bartley, co-owner of Jerry's Kitchen and Goods, a diner and general in store that's renowned for its hiker friendliness.

"Someone came into my store and said they saw hitchhikers up by the trail," he explains, "So I had to jump in my truck and come pick you guys up. Come on, hop in!"

I don't know what to say! I'm flabbergasted. We were even planning on going to his store!

We get into town around five. While the others giddily resupply on candy bars and over-processed crap, I fret about making it to the Post Office before it closes. Jerry's wife Susana offers to give me a ride. These people! They're ceaselessly amazing. I love them. I accept.

We get to the Post Office. The front door is unlocked, but it seems that they've closed for the day. I groan. I hear a voice from behind a door. "Are you a hiker?"

"God?" I ask, surprised.

There's a laugh from behind the door. No, just a postal worker.

"Yes, I'm a hiker!" I say quickly, trying to hide my embarrassment, "I'm trying to pick up a mail drop?"

"One minute!"

There is a series of clicks, then a rosy-cheeked postal employee appears in the doorway. I tell her my name, and she cheerfully retrieves my package. What a relief!

I check out what I've got as Susana drives us back to Jerry's Kitchen. It's about two pounds of homemade granola from my friend Rebecca. Granola! My favorite! She's made granola bars especially for me, but also for a cooking show she produces. She sent me a cute note along with the bars wishing me well, and instructing me not to murdered by a muscly redneck named Bubba. I am touched. I resolve to send Becca a thank you note, and then promptly forget all about it. I am a bad person.

Back at Jerry's Kitchen, the four of us promptly order dinner. Alphabet, P-Nut and I gorge ourselves on diner food, catch up on the news, check our e-mail, and relax. We learn that there's been a massive volcanic eruption that's apparently destroyed Europe, and also a heinous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that's evidently killed every living thing south of New Orleans. And New Orleans itself. Again. Feeling fat and lazy, but more connected to the rapidly deteriorating larger world, we leave to head to the hostel.

Luckily it's only a few hundred yards away. It's almost completely empty. There are only two other guests. One is an asian guy who's biking cross-country. The other is some crazy white guy who's running cross-country. P-Nut inexplicably stays outside to bond with them, while the girls and I go inside to play speed Scrabble until bed.

We all shower before we go to bed. The temperature has dropped drastically outside, making us even more secure in our decision to stay in town. I'm glad to be with my trail family. I miss Bandito, Caveman, Redwing and Lil Dipper, of course. And especially Hobbes. But I know I'll see them again. I think about Caboose and Spark, and then my thoughts turn inexorably to my friends at home, and Megan. I feel a sense of deja vu, and a familiar swooping in my stomach, but I don't know why.

And so I drift off to a peaceful sleep. Except I don't. Because P-Nut is snoring.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chapter 44: White, Wet, Sticky Stuff

Caveman and I stopped to take a break. It had been raining steadily ever since we left the Lost Mountain Shelter that morning and we both would have been miserable if not for each other's company. We told stories and cracked jokes to keep the miseries of the world and the creeping doubts in our hearts at bay.

We were climbing Mount Rogers, which at 5,729' is the tallest mountain in Virginia. That the trail didn't actually traverse the summit and would only climb to 5,540' came as little solace. We were already facing forty-three hundred feet of elevation change. What was another two hundred?

Still, it was a rough slog, and very slow going. We could hardly see for the fog surrounding us. The steady rain whipped at our faces, inexorably finding the seams in our rain gear, trickling down our necks, soaking us and our gear.

"But hey, at least we're not dirty slackpackers," I joked.

Caveman laughed, and we both fell silent, thinking about P-Nut, Redwing, Lil Dipper and the others being in town somewhere, keeping dry, probably enjoying sodas or juice. The idea filled me with a wonderful, burning hatred, sending a tingling, warming sensation through my body. Feeling returned to my extremities. I had to double check that I hadn't peed in my pants. I hadn't.

And then I remembered that, unless the others had decided to stay in town for another day because of the weather, they would be out here too. That they were some unfathomable distance ahead, trudging steadily away from us through the wind and rain. For some reason, that made me sad.

Something white, soft, wet, and sticky landed on my knee. I looked up. It was everywhere: on the ground, in my hair, coating the branches of trees.

"What is this?" I cried, in a rising panic. "What the hell is happening?"

"I think it's called snow," replied Caveman laconically.

But I wasn't listening to him. I was so confused and frightened. "Whatever it is," I said, shaking my head, "I hate it!"

We decided not to linger, and hurried forward in a blind rush to get to the next shelter and safety. Unbeknownst to us, we were entering the Grayson Highlands, an area of spectacular, boulder-strewn alpine meadows inhabited by herds of wild ponies. Clueless, neither Caveman nor myself stopped to acknowledge our achievement, or to appreciate the view.

We emerged from the forest onto a wide swath of unkempt, pristine grassland. The snow was falling hard and thick, coating everything in a white sheen. It was like stepping back in time, into a land untouched by human hands. Despite the snow, or perhaps because of it, there was a certain tranquility in the atmosphere, and a peaceful silence hung in the air. Or there would have been if not for the pony.

Caveman almost fell over backwards when he saw it, and then I almost bowled Caveman over not realizing that he'd stopped. The pony stood some twenty feet away from us, casually chewing on some grass. It peered at us curiously through a thick tangle of white hair, but otherwise failed to acknowledge that we were even there. It was actually kind of cute. The novelty soon wore off, however, and we remembered our predicament. It was cold. It was late April. And it was turning into a blizzard.

Caveman and I regrouped with Hobbes and Bandito at the Thomas Knob Shelter, a two-story affair that was getting absolutely hammered by the wind and snow. Some of us sought refuge in the shelter's fully enclosed upper level, but found it already packed with another group of hikers, some of whom were passing around a tall boy of Steel Reserve. Stymied, Bandito erected his tent in the more exposed ground floor to shield himself from the wind. It wasn't long before he and the others crawled into their sleeping bags, got too comfortable, and decided just to stay there to wait out the storm.

I wasn't content to wait around, however, and paced around the shelter cursing impatiently, filled with a nagging sense of impotence and futility. We had only gone twelve miles, and it was barely after noon. I couldn't believe that my companions were already contemplating quitting for the day. Didn't they want to catch up with our friends, those despicable slackpackers, even if just to take a vengeful dump in their sleeping bags like I did?

Needless to say, this was not a scenario I had envisioned when I awoke that morning. This was not what I had planned. I didn't want to be stuck there, with a bunch of people we didn't even know, falling further and further behind our other friends. As much as it pained me to abandon Caveman, Bandito, and especially Hobbes, deep down I knew they would catch up. I told them I had decided to hike on, and promptly left.

Fate rewarded my decision. No more than half an hour later, the snow began to slacken before letting up completely. The clouds dissipated, and the sun came out. It was, all of a sudden, a completely gorgeous day.

The trail was difficult to follow, hidden as it was beneath a couple inches of freshly fallen snow. Visible blazes were far and few between, and there were hardly any not at least partially obscured by a fine dusting. Fortunately, I found myself following in the footsteps of a couple of hapless day-hikers, and easily avoided making their mistakes. I could see far ahead of time where their footprints stopped and doubled back, and so managed to not become as lost as they did.

The temperature increased dramatically as I dropped in elevation, and the warmer air perhaps inspired a proportional improvement in my mood. I soon caught up with my unwitting guides. They were a teenage girl and her grandfather out for a weekend of inter-generational bonding, but their plans seemed to have gone comically awry. We chatted for a brief moment, laughing about the freakish weather. I managed to not say or do anything heinous or offensive, and quickly left them behind.

There was less and less snow on the ground the closer I got to Wise Shelter. I entered a wide-open field, my only obstacles the occasional petrified horse patty. And then I saw Nature, walking away from me in the distance, heading from the privy back to the shelter. I had arrived.

Everybody cheered when they saw me. I bowed, magnanimous, and told them I had tried especially hard to catch up with them so I could murder them all in their sleep. Oh, how I hated them. And they had missed me too. P-Nut, Redwing and Lil Dipper had misguidedly sent home their winter gear in Damascus, and were now planning to freeze to death. I still had my trusty 20° sleeping bag, my unicorn hair thermals, and my trusty Lands End fleece pullover. I was practically sweating. 

"So who wants to trade me for my fleece?" I asked the group. Hands quickly shot in the air. "And no, I won't take sexual favors." P-Nut's hand went down.

I ended up trading my fleece to Redwing for the night, although I don't remember what she promised me in return. Perhaps she never paid up. No matter. All of us gave so much to each other over the course of our journey, it would even out in the end.

Eventually, after much boisterous fanfare and catching up, we all settled in for the night. Or tried to. There were nine of us in the shelter, which was built only for eight. I was the odd man out, and ended up sleeping at everybody else's feet. I thought about how miserable Bandito, Hobbes and Caveman must be, in their frozen palace atop the mountain, and drifted off to a contented sleep.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Chapter 43: Slackpackers

It was two days since I had finished the Watauga Lake Challenge, and my body was still recovering. My legs hurt bizarrely in the morning; I had aches in muscles I previously didn't even know existed. But there was nothing for it. It was time to hike on.

Breakfast was an embittering affair, as P-Nut, Redwing and Lil Dipper bragged about their plans to slackpack some twenty five miles out of town. I grumbled my disapproval, but they remained steadfast committed, and even lobbied me to join them. Despite the fact that the Place was "donation only," however, staying in Damascus was getting too expensive for my tastes. I didn't want to be further tempted by the nearby bars or liquor stores, or to go back to that infernal pizzeria. Towns were always money pits, and I knew the longer I stayed, the less enthusiastic I would be about leaving. Besides, I didn't want to get too used to the meager comforts and luxuries of civilization, such as they were. We were in Virginia. The end was in sight. There was no looking back.

The peer pressure was strong, however. Besides the aforementioned trio, Caboose and Spark were also slackpacking, along with Nature, Alphabet, and an old dude named Ranger. Only myself, Bandito, Caveman and Hobbes were actually planning to hike out. Strider, the World's Greatest Traveller, was staying in Damascus to mow people's lawns and do various other unsavory odd-jobs until he could save enough money to continue his journey. None of us expected to see him again.

Actually cheered on by that encouraging thought, I started out ahead of the others. The trail was fairly flat for about a mile out of town, as it followed a road and the Virginia Creeper Trail, an old railroad right-of-way that's been converted into a bike path. I maintained a relatively steady pace for a couple of hours, until I was suddenly forced to duck off in search of a catholing site.

To my right was a slippery slope down towards a stream, and then the Virginia Creeper Trail. Which was paved. Someone could come along on their bike at any second, and I would have little to no warning. So that was out. To my left was an unforgiving, mercilessly steep incline covered in baren saplings providing scant cover. It didn't seem like I had much of a choice.

I had bushwhacked diagonally up the slope about thirty yards when the mounting pressure inside intestines threatened to become tragically explosive. I desperately hacked away at the ground at the base of the nearest tree, dropped trou, and spun around to relieve myself. Only to realize I was still in full view of the trail and the bike path below it. I figured I had enough of a head start on Caveman, Bandito and Hobbes that none of them would catch up while I was in a compromised position. And it was still far too early for any of the southbound slackpackers to cross my path. I finished my business quickly, and went undisturbed.

Although my catholing location was unfortunate, my timing could not have been more fortuitous. It seemed like less than five minutes had elapsed before Caboose came crashing towards me through the trees. He was a man possessed, clearly relishing a return to the hearth, his dog, a pizza, a shower, and a bed. I hissed epithets at him as he whistled passed, but he was going to fast to hear me. He had already gone something like fifteen miles in the time it had taken me to do nine.

Damn him, I thought, envying his speed and dexterity, unencumbered as he was. I vowed then to never slackpack, so long as I lived. It was cheating. It was indecent. It was barbaric, and unforgivably evil. I couldn't wait to do it myself. Maybe I could make my friends slackpack me when I got closer to home.

Lil Dipper and Redwing approached, with P-Nut dutifully in tow.

"Hey traitors," I said, waving at them. "Hope you fall off a cliff and die!"

"Whatever M.C.," muttered Redwing, rolling her eyes. "You're just jealous."

"How dare you," I shouted, "accurately portray the situation!"

"You should have came with us," said Lil Dipper, giggling.

"Never!" I shrieked. "I hate all of you!"

"Hey man," said P-Nut. "How's it going?"

"Oh, you know," I shrugged. "Just took a dump in the woods."

"Right on, man" laughed P-Nut.

"Hey!" I screamed, realizing my mistake. "Don't act all chummy with me! We're sworn enemies!"

"Since when?" asked Redwing, rather levelly.

"Shut up!" I hated being backed into a corner like this. "Since 1776!"

"Oh, very witty!" said Lil Dipper, though I doubt she was that impressed.

I spat, and called them the worst name I could think of. "Slackpackers," I said, shaking my head.

Yet I felt sad and utterly alone as I watched them disappear into the woods behind me. I knew I should have gone with them. What was I thinking? No! Be strong, I thought. They're going to be in town tonight, eating pizza and drinking beer, laughing and having fun, and spending lots of money, while I'll be enjoying that instant oatmeal I picked out of the hiker box, and then crying myself to sleep in my sleeping bag in a tent in the middle of the woods. For free. Wait, no! Stop, this isn't helping! Damn it all!

"Hi M.C.!" said Alphabet, smiling cheerfully at me as she and Spark walked up.

Without thinking, I stuck out my foot and tripped tripped Alphabet. She stumbled and fell awkwardly into some pricker bushes.

"What the hell was that for?" Spark demanded. Alphabet rolled over, several thorns stuck in her hands, on the verge of tears.

I immediately felt terrible. "Sorry," I mumbled, and belatedly offered Alphabet a helping hand.

She didn't take it, and glared at me, wounded. Spark quickly helped her up, then turned to me.

"You know what's coming, don't you?" she asked.

"Yes," I sighed, and resignedly covered my face in my hands to protect myself. And then she kicked me in the balls.

Just leave me here to die, I thought as I lay on the ground weeping. But they already had. I decided to take a break to catch my breath, and to wait for the intense throbbing pain in my testicles to wain. It was going to be a long day.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Chapter 42: Damascus

We awoke around seven to a steady drizzle. P-Nut, Caveman and Fat Jim had arrive sometime after us during the night, and were tented nearby on the lawn. My entire body ached. I felt like a dog turd that had been trampled by a herd of elephants.

My feet were bruised and swollen. My legs wobbled like shredded string cheese. My left achilles tendon had tightened up so considerably I could barely walk. But hobble I did, inside, in an increasing panic to find a bathroom.

The Place was empty. There must have been two dozen open bunks. In our exhausted stupor, hadn't even looked inside to check if there was room. It was a ridiculous lapse in judgement, but I didn't care. We had just hiked forty miles in eighteen hours.

Bandito and I went to a diner for breakfast. The food was terrible. It was the best meal we would ever eat, at least until lunchtime. I had a milkshake, and we waited for his aunt and uncle to arrive. Or maybe they were his cousins. He had relatives coming to meet us, in any case.

They came. And they were wonderfully generous and accommodating. They drove us to nearby Abingdon, Virginia, and put us up in a hotel. Then we went out for lunch. Mexican food. Then we did our laundry, and I called some friends to alert them of my progress. Then we went out for dinner. And then we went back to the hotel, and slept in real beds for a change. It was glorious.

The next day we had the complimentary continental breakfast in the hotel. I had never seen such a magnificent array of foods. I decided to try a little of everything. Sometimes I had seconds. Bandito's relatives drove us back to Damascus, where we claimed bunks at the Place. If I had been capable of feeling anything besides excruciating pain and exhaustion, I might have been happy to see that Caveman, P-Nut, and Hobbes were still there.

Bandito showed his relatives around town, taking them to the Mt. Roger's Outfitter, where they stocked up on expensive freeze dried foods. I sat outside on a lawn chair, dead to the world. Braids may have walked past, or maybe it was a mirage. I may have teased her for being the overly ambitious one, yet we had caught up with her. Again. I may have told her that we had just done the Watauga Lake Challenge. She may have then questioned our sanity. And that would have meant a lot, coming from her, if it had really happened. But I can't be sure.

Bandito came out and spoke to Braids briefly, before she went on her way. She was hiking out that day, and we'd likely never see her again. My heart might have fluttered, but I could feel no real sadness or empathy. I could feel nothing. We said goodbye to Braids and waved her off. Bandito smirked, and said I looked like I was in a much better mood all of a sudden. I don't know what he was talking about.

We said goodbye to Bandito's relatives. I hope I was appropriately profuse in thanking them for their ridiculous hospitality, but I have no memory of the conversation. They plied us with snacks and fruit, and then left. They were charming and adorable, just like the rest of Bandito's family. He had relatives strategically placed all along the Eastern Seaboard. I was sorry my family lived only in New England, and couldn't be as helpful, to repay his and their kindness.

We eventually found our way to Quincey's Pizza for dinner. Our fellow hikers had seemingly shut the place down, either through guile or their elite hiker stench. We had almost the entire restaurant to ourselves. Miller Time was there, shamelessly hitting on a conspicuously intoxicated Nature. Caboose and Spark were there, splitting a six dollar pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon. And then there was the kiddie table, occupied by Hobbes, P-Nut, Lil Dipper, Redwing, Saint, Caveman, Alphabet, Sasquatch, and the Loch Ness Monster. It felt great to be back amongst friends.

I abstained from alcoholic beverages, and managed to eat an entire pizza without vomiting or having more than one bout of uncontrollable diarrhea. Nature reintroduced me to Alphabet, whom I'd previously met as Kate. The last time I'd seen her, she was dashing up Clingman's Dome in the dark, planning to camp on top. Alphabet was a raging alcoholic, and was considering starting her own brewery when she finished with the trail to expedite her inevitable liver failure. She had heard from Nature that I was a home brewer, and had been excited to read a recipe I had written for an India Pale Ale in a shelter log. I was suddenly her new best friend, and we held a long, fascinating conversation almost exclusively about beer. It was all she wanted to talk about. Which was fine with me, because beer was also one of my favorite subjects. After food. And pooping.

When the waiter brought our bills, we finally learned each other's real names. I already knew Caboose and Spark were Brian and Alyson, and that Lil Dipper and Redwing had weird and British names like Clarice and Helena. And that P-Nut was actually named P-Nut, because his parents were hippies. But I didn't know that Caveman's real name was Devin, or that Bandito's name was Josh. You'd think I'd have learned his real name, having spent so much time with him and his family, but, as far as I could remember, they had all referred to him as Bandito. Odd. I was especially surprised to find out my real name was T. Baxter Corwin Neuse-Braunlich III, Esq. Hobbes was the most upset to have his secret identity revealed, however. Those of us who were sober enough to remember his real name proceeded to torture him with it by calling him Adam exclusively from then on.

We returned to the Place and found we had a couple hours to kill. I suggested playing cards, as I had gotten a deck from a woman giving out trail magic some days earlier. Redwing eagerly accepted my challenge, and bragged about her prodigious skill at Hearts. Apparently the game was all she played with her friends as they blitzed merrily around Europe on their ubiquitous high-speed railroad system. She and Lil Dipper often went to Paris after school, just to get an espresso and a scone at Le Plaza Athenée, and spent the four hours on the train playing cards. I was going down.

I shot the moon on the first hand. As it bore on, the game increasingly resembled the American Revolution. It ultimately ended with Lil Dipper and Redwing in tears, begging for forgiveness, and swearing fealty to and unwavering respect towards American awesomeness and our universal superiority over everything. Overcome by my victory, I sang The Star-Spangled Banner in their faces, had a patriotic orgasm in my pants, and then went to bed. With apologies to my numerous past and current girlfriends, it was the best night of my life.

Except for the snoring, which drove me to sleep on the porch. In the rain. At four in the morning.